Pockets of hockey dads huddle and conspire while drinking their warm, morning coffees within Phil White Arena in Toronto. You can hear whispers of advocacy, feel an atmosphere of community and guess that each group is thinking the same thing: Why did we have to do this?
“I don’t think the Greater Toronto Hockey League [GTHL] cares about concussion injuries,” says Neil Clifford, one of five directors running the new Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL). He also coaches his son’s team, one of the league’s three teams made up of 11-and-12 year-olds. Behind the bench, he keeps warm by hiding under a tightly pulled blue Chevy Re-Evolution cap, his jacket’s high collar cutting across his crimson cheeks.
“We’re offering a safe alternative for kids playing hockey,” says Clifford, still shaking his head over the three concussions his son suffered in the GTHL. “I mean, how many kids have you seen laying on the ice? And they’re playing competitive hockey here.” Despite Clifford’s efforts, even his non-contact league can’t avoid incidental injuries, maybe even concussions.
Cindy Hughes, head athletic therapist at York University’s Sport Injury Clinic, says although the chances of suffering concussions in non-contact sports may be reduced, they still occur. “We’ve had them in volleyball, cross-country [running], even badminton,” she says.
“I don’t think the Greater Toronto Hockey League [GTHL] cares about concussion injuries” - Neil Clifford, Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League
In the GTHL, Clifford believes “the whole system is based on aggressive hockey, based on hitting and ultimately, kids getting hurt.” He sees kids’ injuries as collateral damage for parents who think their kids are going pro.
“It’s not fair to the sport,” says David Colucci, lead instructor at Excellerate Hockey School, where kids learn to give and receive hits. “The game of hockey includes hitting and that’s the way the game should be played.” Colucci supports non-contact but believes contact is a necessary component of truly competitive hockey and encourages teaching and introducing hitting at the Pewee level, as does the GTHL . “If you teach somebody properly, I think you can teach them at any age,” he says.
At the GTHL head office, idolized eyes stare down from walls plastered with signed photos of Canadian NHL stars all in national uniforms, many of them products of the GTHL. “We polled our current 48 organizations of competitive clubs,” says Scott Oakman, the GTHL’s executive director. “Asked if they’d be interested in housing a team in a separate division of non-contact, not one of them was interested.” Oakman says associations turned it down due to a lack of parent interest.
But Clifford’s perspective differs. “It was relatively easy to start the TNCHL,” he says, suggesting that a lack of interest is not the obstacle. Rather, there’s a conflict of interest. “It’s problematic,” he says. “If players leave their contact teams for non-contact, it leaves contact teams depleted.”
“Trust me,” says Oakman, “if our organizations thought there was a market for something, they’d be all over it.” With the number of concussions occurring throughout the GTHL, over 22 reported this season, why associations and their parent groups denied a concept likely to decrease those numbers is baffling.
“We don’t require [that] concussions get reported here [to head office],” says Oakman, revealing a disheartening fact that fuels underreporting throughout the league. When reported, each player must clear the GTHL’s return-to-play policy, which requires a letter of permission from an accredited physician, a process even more puzzling than the denial of a non-contact division.
“The game of hockey includes hitting and that’s the way the game should be played.” … “If you teach somebody properly, I think you can teach them at any age.” – David Colucci, lead instructor at Excellerate Hockey School
Family physicians don’t have the up-to-date knowledge to properly assess post-concussion symptoms. Unlike doctors certified through the Canadian Academy for Sports Medicine, Oakman says some family physicians will allow players to return to play within a week. “That’s a huge problem, there’s no doubt about that,” says Oakman. Nonetheless, the most shocking consequences of this “huge problem” escapes the understanding of parents and, seemingly, the GTHL.
“Teenagers are more vulnerable to Second Impact Syndrome,” says Hughes. By allowing youngsters to return without proper assessment, “parents are putting their children at such high risk for such serious consequences it scares the pants off me,” she says. Hughes’ genuine concern arises from the consequences of Second Impact Syndrome: If a child sustains a second concussion while recovering from their first, it can result in permanent brain damage or even death.
Testing, which exists to ensure this doesn’t happen, has been used by many pro teams, including the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, the Kitchener Rangers and all of the NHL, just to name a few. The test, named ImPACT, is a web-based program created by Dr. Mark Lovell and Dr. Joseph Maroon and is easily available for those willing to pay a small fee ($25). It guarantees that players returning to play are fit to do so by verifying that their post-concussion test results match their pre-concussion results. Despite this, no minor hockey association has implemented it successfully.
“It’s not like parents don’t have a choice,” says Oakman. “They can put their kids in house league and play non-contact their whole life.” But surely, kids capable of playing at a higher level deserve a non-contact alternative, and that’s where the TNCHL steps in. According to Oakman, devising non-contact hockey for the GTHL (currently the largest minor hockey association in Ontario) is not “on the table right now.”
The TNCHL is currently enjoying their inaugural season and will be expanding next year. For more information on the TNCHL, ImPACT testing or Excellerate Hockey School, please visit these sites: www.tnchl.com, www.impacttest.com, www.excelleratehockey.com